Technology

Yahoo! Juices Its Search Engine


Google may be the heavyweight, but Yahoo aims to cull the most relevant results—drawing in part on its dozens of content sites

For years, no matter which search engine a Web surfer might use, the results always looked the same: page after page of underlined blue words. Sure, the same search through Google (GOOG) and Yahoo! might return identical Web links in a slightly different order. Or Microsoft's engines might display a link not listed by its rivals, or lack one they suggested. But the experience has been largely indistinguishable.

Now Yahoo (YHOO) is trying to differentiate its search results by displaying, in addition to the usual list of links, excerpts of information found on some of those Web sites. The new engine, unveiled Oct. 2, also will present relevant photos and videos, as well as full explanations from partners and Yahoo-owned properties such as Yahoo! Finance, Y! Local, the social search site Answers, and photo-sharing site Flickr. With revenue from search ads surging, the goal of this overhaul is to keep Yahoo users from venturing to Google's long dominant engine whenever it comes time to search.

Tallying the Best Results

Yahoo, of course, is hardly alone in this quest. The relaunch of its search engine came just days after Microsoft (MSFT) flipped the switch on its updated Live Search technology (BusinessWeek.com, 9/27/07), also asserting its results will be more relevant. Similarly, Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI) recently began running TV commercials to tout an overhaul of its Ask.com service (BusinessWeek.com, 6/4/07).

For all these players, the objective is to deliver information Web surfers want on the very first page of results, rather than requiring users to wade through a sea of blue links. "We want to give people a material reason to come to Yahoo as opposed to anywhere else," says Vish Makhijani, Yahoo's senior vice-president of search. The new engine still provides Web links, but they are often located below the quick answers that Yahoo calculates the user really wants.

For example, a search for "Jessica Alba movies" reveals a pull-down window, located immediately beneath the search bar, featuring the names of all the recent movies in which the Good Luck Chuck actress has starred. The movie titles, which Yahoo provides by scanning its movie site, are meant to help users refine their query. Then, if a specific movie is selected, Yahoo shows a box with related trailers, reviews, and local theater times instead of immediately linking to the film's Web site or, say, IMDb.com (the Internet Movie Database).

New and Improved All Around

Not all of the features are entirely new. Yahoo's engine, the Web's second busiest after Google's, has quietly rolled out many new capabilities during the past few months. A search for restaurants, for example, will highlight information from Y! Local enabling users to search by cuisine, neighborhood, and user ratings. Similarly, a search for local events offers prominent play to information from Upcoming.org, the social calendar site that Yahoo acquired in October, 2005. And Yahoo has long displayed stock charts from Yahoo! Finance when responding to queries for a company's share price.

For Microsoft, Live Search is the second generation of a service launched last year. The latest edition displays more of what Microsoft calls "instant answers" above the Web links from which they're culled. In addition to the obligatory links, the results to a search for a football player will display related team standings, individual statistics, and other information about that player. Live Search also features images, news articles, and product reviews from relevant Web sites. Where possible, a search for a person's name will produce images and, in the case of celebrities, a user rating.

In June, IAC reengineered Ask.com to better highlight images, encyclopedia entries, and news articles. The new version, which divides search results into three columns, prominently features Wikipedia encyclopedia entries and videos from sites such as Dailymotion and ExpoTV. Like Yahoo, IAC is trying to position its own sites as an attractive destination for searches. The launch of Ask3D followed the December debut of Ask City, a local search site that highlights reviews from IAC-owned Citysearch and movie information from IAC's Ticketmaster.

Google: A Verb for a Reason

With Google's name so deeply entrenched in users' minds as a synonym for search, rivals may need to do more than provide better results to win converts. This isn't the first time the leading contenders have upgraded their search engines with new features. But despite their efforts, Google's market share has only increased. At last count, Google was fielding nearly 64% of search queries, according to measurement firm Hitwise. That's more than Yahoo (23%), Microsoft (8%), and Ask (3.5%) combined. Even Google's competitors admit it won't be easy to overcome the power of Google's brand. "It's no question that it is a big hurdle," says Yahoo's Makhijani.

Dominance of search brings tremendous financial rewards: Google is expected to take in roughly three-quarters of the more than $8 billion forecasted to be spent on search advertising this year, according to research firm eMarketer. Yahoo, by contrast, is expected to pull in just 16.3% of that market. In past years, much of that revenue disparity was driven by the reality that Google was simply better at placing relevant ads next to any given search, boosting the number of money-generating clicks. But with Yahoo's upgrade to a more robust search advertising platform named Panama earlier this year, more of that revenue gap is explained by the difference in total searches performed on the respective engines.

None of this is to suggest that Google isn't working hard to cement and boost its commanding market share. In May, Google debuted Universal Search, an upgrade to its core search engine that tries to go beyond the concept of providing short answers, such as a stock quote in response to a ticker symbol. In addition to providing the requisite Web links, Universal Search displays images, videos, news, and other information.

The Advantage of Content

Some of these enhancements have the added benefit of directing users to other Google-owned properties. A query for Apple (AAPL) Chief Executive Steve Jobs, for example, returns videos from Google's YouTube that play from within the search page, as well as images and related news articles from Google's archive. (Unlike Yahoo's and Microsoft's new results, these extras often appear at the bottom of the search results page.) Before Universal Search, Google's search results would only provide Web links to such multimedia content, unless the query was made on Google's news, photo, or video search sites. "Sometimes those non-Web links are the best answer to your search query," says David Bailey, lead software engineer on Universal Search. "We've made some strides, but are working on many further improvements, as part of Google's commitment to remain the leader in providing a relevance-focused results page."

While its new search capabilities echo many of those introduced by rivals, Yahoo still has something that could give its new engine an edge: dozens of content sites focusing on everything from automobiles to weather. Owning those properties enables Yahoo to mine its data more thoroughly than an outside search engine can, says Makhijani. For example, because it has its own music service, Yahoo doesn't need to guess that an audio clip is from a certain artist singing a certain song when it highlights that clip in response to a search. "If we own it, and we can deliver additional value, then we will use it," says Makhijani.


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